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Baschnagel’s heart is his bagpipes

CAMBRIA – Joseph Baschnagel has been playing the bagpipes for years, everywhere from funerals to sports arenas.

Not even a heart transplant can stop his love for the pipes.

Baschnagel, 62, who received a life-saving transplant in 2011, will be playing as usual at noon Tuesday, when the Lockport chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians holds its annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass in All Saints Catholic Church in Lockport.

After all, he said, his doctor told him to exercise, and blowing the bagpipes is a good workout for the heart and lungs.

Baschnagel, who is the director of Celtic Spirit, perhaps the area’s top bagpipe band, started blowing the pipes again six weeks after his surgery, which rescued him from impending death because of congestive heart failure.

He agreed to have his surgery at the Cleveland Clinic chronicled by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The newspaper published an eight-part series in the fall of 2011 that included photos taken during the transplant operation itself. A video of the operation was posted online by the clinic.

For Baschnagel, a staunch supporter of Upstate New York Transplant Services, it was an easy choice. “I play for them all the time,” he said.

He said his father and grandfather both had the same heart problems he had. “Thank God we live in the times we do,” he said.

Baschnagel said he knew he was in trouble at the Celtic Festival in Olcott in September 2010, when he was unable to walk and play at the same time. His local cardiologist told him there was nothing to worry about, but Baschnagel’s son Andrew, an oncologist now living in Madison, Wis., thought otherwise.

Andrew took his father to the Cleveland Clinic in the spring of 2011, where he was put on the waiting list for a new heart. “They had a pump on me, keeping me alive,” he said. It was pumping the drug dobutamine, which is used to fight acute heart failure.

He remained there for three months with no suitable donor heart for him becoming available, so eventually, they sent him home. Three days later, a donor heart that matched his blood and antibody types became available, and he rushed back to Cleveland for surgery Aug. 22, 2011.

A doctor asked him as he was being prepared for surgery if he would be willing to take part in the clinic’s publicity effort through the Plain Dealer. “I said, ‘It’s OK with me as long as I can get a new heart today,’ ” Baschnagel recalled. “There’s only a three-hour window to get the heart off life support and get it to Cleveland. As it happened, I didn’t get the heart until 5 p.m., because they had trouble with the guy ahead of me.”

Baschnagel said he was asked what he most wanted to do if he got a transplant. “I said, ‘I want to be able to drink again.’”

It’s not what you think.

“Not alcohol, water. I had congestive heart failure and you have to take diuretics, and you have to limit how much water you drink each day because your heart’s not able to pump it out of your lungs,” Baschnagel said. “Basically, all the organs in my body were great. I never smoked, I was not much of a big drinker, I always kept in shape. I was in good shape except for the heart, so I was a good candidate.”

He had good health insurance, but the transplant cost him more than $20,000 out of pocket, which a community fundraiser helped pay off.

Although retired from his job as chief stationary engineer at Washington Mills in the City of Tonawanda, where he worked for 40 years, Baschnagel remains active.

A former Eagle Scout himself, he has been involved with the Boy Scout troop at Cambria Volunteer Fire Company for decades, and is currently assistant scoutmaster. He continues to respond to rescue calls for the fire company, serving these days primarily as a fire policeman, since he is an exempt member. He also has also been rated a master gardener by Cornell Cooperative Extension, which requires him to do at least 40 hours a year of volunteer gardening. “I enjoy that immensely,” Baschnagel said.

Baschnagel has been blowing the bagpipes for 40 years. He played some trumpet and drums as a young man, but the pipes became his choice. He said they can stir the emotions like no other instrument.

He said he’s been told by mourners after funerals: “I was OK until you started playing the pipes.”

“You gotta let it out,” Baschnagel said.

He played for the first time six weeks after his transplant. “I’m obsessed with the bagpipes, as you probably can tell,” he said.

Baschnagel is working on a book about the history of the bagpipes in Western New York over the past 200 years and also has composed some original pipe tunes, including one dedicated to his wife of 42 years, Maureen, who was a nurse at the former Newfane Inter-Community Memorial Hospital.

His bagpipe resumé includes playing at the outset of the Ride for Roswell each year.

“The only year I missed was because of my heart,” he said.

In 1976, Baschnagel played for President Gerald R. Ford at a campaign appearance in Buffalo’s Statler Hilton Hotel.

He also piped the teams onto the ice for the Buffalo Sabres’ outdoor game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008. Celtic Spirit also opened Rod Stewart’s February 2007 concert in what was then HSBC Arena. Playing at the downtown arena was commonplace for Baschnagel, who used to play the bagpipes at the start of all Buffalo Bandits home games.

“I used to be the bagpipe major for the Niagara County Sheriff’s band,” he said. Celtic Spirit was formed after that band folded, and he said it has recorded four CDs. The group includes flutes, keyboards and other instruments not usually heard in pipe bands.

Baschnagel has to take anti-rejection drugs every day and frequently has to give blood samples, besides checkups in Cleveland every six months. “I’ve been zero rejection from Day One,” he said.

He urged people to sign the organ donor notice on the back of their New York driver’s license.

He knows nothing about the person whose heart he carries. He wrote a letter that was delivered to the donor’s family by a hospital mediator, but received no reply. “That’s fine. I understand in a way,” he said.

“The best thing I can do to honor the person who donated the heart that I was fortunate enough to receive is to try to give back,” Baschnagel said.